A conversation with Michael Golding is as mystical and lyrical as his new novel, A Poet of the Invisible Word. The book follows Nouri, a youth with four ears, through his entire life within 13th-century Islamic culture. The boy is continually on the move, seeking a way to understand himself and the world around him through religion, sensual pleasure, poetry and love.
With A Poet of the Invisible World, Golding delivers a character-driven narrative possessing some of this year’s most captivating prose. Paste chatted with the author about becoming a writer, creating Nouri’s journey and defining the unifying themes in his books.
Paste: Given this is a coming-of-age story about a poet, what was your coming-of-age like as a novelist?
Golding: When I was young, there was always a battle between the part of me that wanted to be an actor and the part of me that wanted to be a writer. Since writing meant locking myself in a room for years at a time, I went off and became an actor. But at a certain point, I realized I couldn’t continue that way. I understood that I didn’t want to play Hamlet—I wanted to be Shakespeare. I moved to Paris with a very romantic notion that, like Hemingway and Faulkner, I’d start writing novels. I was also thinking that it was probably foolish, and I’d probably return home to continue on in the theater. But as soon as I got to Paris, it started pouring out of me. I’ve never looked back.
Paste: Do you feel like your time in theater taught you lessons about the cadence of dialogue or brought a theatricality to your prose?
Golding: I don’t really see how I’d write novels without the training I had in the theater. I know many great novelists do. When you act, you become a character. When I write, I become all my characters. I just live it through. It taught me so much about the rhythm of a scene and how to shape things. I think it was very important for me.
Paste: It seems like many authors end up learning from the characters they create. Did you learn anything new about writing after writing about a poet?
Golding: I’m not sure I learned much at this point about the process of writing, but I do think I learned something about the process of living. I think I set Nouri on a path to understand what it means to be here, and I learned a lot about what it means to be here through his journey.
Paste: Religion and spirituality play a huge part in Nouri’s journey. How have those subjects made themselves apparent in your own life?
Golding: I was raised in the Jewish tradition, but my family was not religious. As I grew, I realized that I was spiritual, but it wasn’t tied to any faith. I’ve studied all the great religions, and I think they all fundamentally hold the same basic truths. So when I set out to write a book about a boy in the 13th-century world of Islam, I somehow thought it wasn’t really an obstacle that I wasn’t Muslim. I did a lot of research, but I do feel the basic quest of the soul is the same, whatever religion you practice or follow or don’t follow.
Paste: When it came to choosing the setting of this book, how did you decide where and when it would take place?
Golding: I don’t feel I choose the book; I feel the book chooses me. There’s a period where I’m staring, where I’m trolling the waters to see what’s there. But at a certain moment, there’s a flash and I see the whole book. It’s completely finished and it’s on a bookshelf in the future. Then it takes me years to get it down when, in reality, it just came to me in a flash.
Paste: What was in the flash for this book that made you believe it could only be written within the bounds of 13th-century Islamic culture?
Golding: I think I knew I wanted to write about someone who became a Sufi. Of course, once you’re immersed in Sufism, you’re immersed in Islam, even though it’s a very particular branch of Islam. You could call it the esoteric branch of Islam. So I was bound to all things of the Sufi world.
Paste: How did you make sure you wrote about this historical culture sensitively and authentically?
Golding: I don’t try to write historical fiction in that I don’t want to show you exactly what the 13th century was like. It’s almost the reverse. I’m interested in an experience, and it just so happens to exist within this exotic time and place. It’s my 13th century, it’s my Persia, so I don’t claim complete verisimilitude. On the other hand, I have a stack of about 50 books that I read. I read everything I can to get the details right, the textures, the colors. I want it to be as specific as possible. I think that grounds the reader.
Paste: One of Nouri’s defining traits is that he has four ears and, by extension, he’s better at listening and writing than some of his immediate peers. How do you think those of us with just two ears could get better at listening in the same way?
Golding: I was as surprised as the reader probably is to find out Nouri had four ears. I trust those moments; they’re wonderful moments when something is revealed to you. From one point of view, I don’t want to say. But also, your question interests me and what came to me when you asked it is that the second set of ears represents an internal set of ears—what we might call the inner ear or the ears of the soul. They’re to hear what’s really being said in our lives, perhaps in the invisible world. From that point of view, we all have that set and it’s part of our task to develop that inner sensitivity.
Paste: Your writing possesses a classical storytelling element, so that it sounded like I was reading a myth or a legend. Is that something you wanted to emulate?
Golding: At this time, having written several books, I know that that’s how people feel when they read my work. I don’t set out to do it that way. It’s just somehow the part of me that wants to tell a story tells the story in that particular way. I know I like universality and moving away from the current time. I don’t feel I have enough perspective on the current time to write about it. Some writers write about it brilliantly, and I applaud them. By going to some other time or place, something mythic seems to emerge from me and I embrace it at this point.
Paste: Is there a unifying thread you see through all of your work?
Golding: I guess I could say that life is a journey and love guides the way. I know that sounds like a fortune cookie. [Laughs] But it’s true. Part of it, in relation to the last couple of things you said, is that the challenge of writing a novel is conveying those things without actually saying them. So when I’m asked what it’s about, I have to say the things I didn’t really want to say out loud. [Laughs]